Tim Martin

A Night in Purgatory

Lincoln in the Bardo


Bloomsbury 341pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

On 20 February 1862, a year into the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s third son, Willie, died of a fever. He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. This first novel, published at the age of fifty-eight by the bestselling short-story writer George Saunders, takes over from there. Set on a single night in the cemetery, it describes Willie’s sojourn in the hereafter with a company of jabbering spirits who don’t yet know they’re dead. ‘A beam from the ceiling came down, hitting me just here, as I sat at my desk,’ one muses. ‘Fortunately, it is a minor surgery only,’ says another. ‘I came to this here town with seven dolers stitched in of my panse and do not intend to go any damn plase until someone tell me where in Hel is my dolers,’ complains a mournful third. Occasionally, with a flash and a loud report, known to the post-lifers as the ‘matterlightblooming phenomenon’, a soul passes over to the great beyond. Others hang around, sometimes for years. ‘Truth be told, there was not one among the many here – not even the strongest – who did not entertain some lingering doubt about the wisdom of his or her choice.’

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